The Two World Cup Group Stage Favorites Who Could Be Knocked Out

Posted: 06/10/2018 by levcohen in Soccer

The World Cup starts on Thursday with Russia-Saudi Arabia. Nothing signals the start of the biggest sporting event in the world like a game between FIFA’s 67th (Saudi Arabia) and 70th (Russia) ranked teams, right? Of course, Russia may not have qualified for the tournament period had they not received automatic qualification as the host nation. Instead, not only did they qualify without going through the rigorous European qualification campaign that felled the likes of Italy, the Netherlands, and Austria, but they also were designated as a Pot 1 team alongside FIFA’s top seven teams (Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, and France). Remember, this is largely the same Russia team as the one that earned just one point in EURO 2016, drawing England before losing to Slovakia and getting thrashed by Wales (neither of whom qualified for the World Cup, by the way). The result is that Group A is one of the easiest groups in World Cup history. Saudi Arabia and Russia, by ranking the two worst teams in the tournament, are joined by Uruguay and Egypt. It’s a dream group for Uruguay, a talented team featuring star strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani (the leading scorer in CONMEBOL qualifying with 10 goals, three more than anyone else) and a solid structure that led them to a strong second place showing in South American qualifying (behind just Brazil). I think Uruguay could finish second behind either Egypt or Russia, but it’s hard for me to imagine them finishing third or fourth and missing out on the knockout stage entirely. But the result of Group A being so weak is that some of the other World Cup groups feature three or even four strong teams. Uruguay is not in much danger, but a fewer of the other group’s favorites may be. And it seems like every four years, at least one tournament favorite gets knocked out early. In 2014, that team was Spain, which was coming off of a historic streak of wins in the 2008 Euro Championship, the 2010 World Cup, and the 2012 Euro Championship. In 2010, both France and Italy failed to make it out of their groups. Here are the two favorites who could realistically fail to reach the knockout stage of the World Cup in 2018:

Argentina: This Argentina team really confuses me. On the one hand, they have a lot of top-end talent. Lionel Messi is the top-endest of top-end talents, for my money the best player of all-time. But he’s shockingly never won a tournament (World Cup or otherwise) for Argentina, and this may well be his last chance given that he’s already gone into and out of international retirement. Messi will likely have free rein to create for Argentina, and he’s joined by plenty of attacking talent. Sergio Aguero is one of the top strikers in the world, and while he’s always an injury risk, it seems like he’s getting healthy at the right time. Gonzalo Higuain is also a striker with great pedigree, although he’s had a troubled international career. Throw in Juventus’s Paulo Dybala, PSG’s Angel Di Maria, and Boca Juniors’s up-and-coming Cristian Pavon and it’s obvious that Argentina has buckets of attacking talent. And yet.. they scored just 19 goals in South American qualifying in 18 games. That was tied for the second-lowest mark in the 10-team group, ahead of only Bolivia. Brazil, meanwhile, scored 41. The offensive struggles were what necessitated a coaching change midway through the qualifying campaign. Meanwhile, Argentina’s defense was tremendous in World Cup qualifying and yet clearly has holes going into the tournament. The biggest hole is at goalkeeper. With starting keeper Sergio Romero ruled out due to a knee injury, the starting goalie will probably be Willy Caballero, a backup goalie for Chelsea on club level who struggled last season. Given that coach Jorge Sampaoli seems likely to throw a lot of men forward, especially in games against defensive teams like Iceland, Argentina could well be suspect to counter-attacks. That makes defensive duties very important, and Argentina has some question marks there. Javier Mascherano has long been Argentina’s defensive midfielder, a key to stopping nascent counter-attacks. But he’s 34-years-old now, and his move to China at club level can’t have helped his fitness. That’ll put more pressure on the defense. Nicolas Otamendi and Federico Fazio are a solid central defensive duo, but I wouldn’t call them dominant. Depending on how Argentina decides to play — and how many of their attack-minded players they decide to shove onto the field — I could see Otamendi and/or Fazio being exposed by Nigerian, Icelandic, and Croatian counter-attacks.

Argentina isn’t a very well-rounded team, they struggled through qualifying, they’re missing their starting goalie, and they don’t have an identity. If you’re forecasting them to make a run in the tournament, you’re probably betting that Messi will carry them game after game. And if you’re betting on an individual player, there’s no better bet than Messi. That’s why, despite all the holes, I could see Argentina making the same type of run they did in 2014, when they lost to Germany in the finals. But they also have big bust potential. They were handed a tough group with no pushovers. Iceland’s the smallest nation to make a World Cup, but they’re legit. They reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 by beating England, and they qualified atop their qualification group. Second in that group was Croatia, who also happen to be in Group D. The Croats have a lot of talent and the explosiveness to hit Argentina on the break. I’m excited for the Argentina-Croatia game because it has the potential for a lot of goals. And the fourth team in the group, Nigeria, can’t be discounted either. Talent-wise, Argentina is the best team in the group, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were to fail to qualify due to their weaknesses and the overall strength of their group.

Colombia: It was easy to fall in love with Colombia in the 2014 World Cup. They had the breakout star of the tournament, James Rodriguez (then of Monaco), who secured a move to Real Madrid thanks to his tremendous performance, which included six goals (including a couple of marvelous ones). They had synchronized dances after goals. And they were good, too, winning all three group games (9-2 total score) and blanking Uruguay 2-0 before bowing out by a respectable 2-1 score to host Brazil in the quarterfinals. They did all of that without star striker Radamel Falcao, who tore his ACL before the 2014 World Cup and missed the tournament. Falcao is back this year and coming off of a tremendous year (24 goals in 36 games for Monaco). James is still the fulcrum and, at 26, is in the prime of his career. He scored eight goals and assisted on 13 more while on loan for Bayern Munich, one of the best clubs in the world. With key players like Juan Cuadrado (the speedy Juventus winger who also opened eyes in 2014) and Davinson Sanchez (a 21-year-old central defender who became a starter for Tottenham in his first season in London) also playing well coming into the tournament, the stage is set for an even deeper run in 2018… Or is it?

For all their strengths, Colombia has glaring holes. Who’ll play next to Sanchez at centerback? Is it Cristian Zapata, who’s an established option but barely played for AC Milan this year? In recent friendlies, the answer has been Yerry Mina, a 23-year-old Barcelona centerback who played just six games for Barca this season. Mina surely has talent, but will his lack of experience (combined with Sanchez’s youth) cost Colombia? I came into this thinking fullback may be another concern, but I’m backing off of that stance after doing research. Fullbacks Frank Fabra and Santiago Arias are both established options in their primes, and both were regular starters for Boca Juniors and PSV Einhdhoven respectively. But I continue to think that central midfield is an issue. Abel Aguilar and Carlos Sanchez are 33 and 32-years-old respectively and have a lot of experience playing next to one another. But while both are rock solid (Sanchez, in fact, has earned the nickname “The Rock”), neither offer much creativity, which could be a problem given that Colombia will surely have to break down organized defenses in the World Cup. That’s why it’s no surprise that, despite the attacking punch brought from James, Cuadrado, and Falcao, Colombia scored just 21 goals in qualifying and finished a point ahead of Chile, who missed out on the tournament entirely.

One factor that could help Colombia: they’ve consistently showed the ability to edge past teams with less talent. That’s how they were able to qualify for the World Cup despite failing to win a single game (they lost four and tied two) against Brazil, Argentina, or Uruguay, the three top qualifiers from South America. But while their group hasn’t gotten much attention, I think both Poland and Senegal could be real threats to Colombia. Poland is led by Robert Lewandowski, the star Bayern striker who scored 16 goals in World Cup qualifying, tops among all European players. The Poles went 8-1-1 in qualifying and remain devastating in attack, although their defense is suspect. And Senegal is brimming with talent, with Sadio Mane up front, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Badou Ndiaye in midfield, and Kalidou Koulibaly in defense. All three teams should beat up on Japan, which has four losses and one tie in their last five games and really lacks the oomph that the rest of the group has. The odds are that Colombia will advance, but they’re not that much better than either Poland or Senegal and could realistically be knocked out.

That means I rate Brazil, Germany, Spain, Uruguay, France, and Belgium as safe. Could one of those six fail to qualify? Sure. But it would probably take a complete meltdown, and I’m not going to try to guess which team may have a complete meltdown. It wouldn’t take a complete meltdown for either Argentina or Colombia to miss out. They have weaker squads (barring Uruguay) and tougher groups than the favorites in the other groups.


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